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If we were to list what sense we relied on most, it would be fair to assume that the great majority of people would answer sight. We use our vision constantly to process information about the environment we are in and the people around us. Gaming already uses our sight to take us on journeys through different worlds and to put us into impossible situations. So, of course it would make sense that the next step would be to involve sight in gaming even more, to make it 360°. That’s where virtual reality steps in.
Right now we’re living in an exciting time as we’re really beginning to take strides in exploring VR and emulating the human experience through it. VR works though tricking your senses into believing in a perceived reality. A reality which, thanks to the leaps technology has taken in recent years, is incredibly convincing. So convincing in fact that VR has been known to produce genuine physical reactions from participants, proving how impressively immersive the experiencing is.
VR provides a safe virtual environment to explore and interact with by tracking the movements of your head and corresponding them to the screen display meaning that a seamless link between your physical movements and the appropriate responses of your screen character lead to a realistic and immersive experience. If the sensory synchronicity is just right (i.e. you hear things precisely when you should, in correspondence to your movements) this is called a sense of presence, literally meaning you feel like you’re present in the environment. But VR has even expanded beyond this with some experiences offering the extension of omni-directional treadmills and special gloves to further stimulate the senses.
There’s a level of separation with gaming as of right now, even if it’s only your thumbs on the controller. With VR, however, this separation doesn’t exist, allowing for a fully immersive experience. Even the boundary of your tv or computer screen is no longer there. VR isn’t even necessarily an isolating experience, already around the world there are VR arcades set up where you can go and visit as a group of friends and experience VR together.
Let’s not limit ourselves to the world of gaming however, not when there’s so much more that VR can offer. I mean, just imagine watching your favourite film, how you just want to crawl into your screen and look around, well with VR you can. You can also apply VR to advertising and education and some VR has even been shown to help mitigate the effects of PTSD, train people in highly skilled jobs (such as surgeons and fighter pilots) and even help pro sports team in their training. VR is already being used to make people more aware of the effects they are having on the world by showing it to them as if they were experiencing it first hand; you can visit the bottom of the ocean and see for yourself the effects of CO2 pollution.
During the third quarter of 2017 more than one million VR headsets were shipped off and this number is only expected to rise. The entertainment industry always thrives off novelty and I highly doubt that VR is about to be the exception. As with all technology we can expect VR to become more accessible as it becomes more mainstream and affordable. With such a multi-faced piece of technology that can be used for so much and in so many ways my only question is this: why on earth wouldn’t there be a future for it?
Imagine you’re watching a film with your friends. Let’s say you’re watching a comedy, a film you’ve all seen before, a film you all love. You’re all sat around the TV, sharing food and drinks, quoting your favourite lines, maybe even throwing in jokes of your own. Now imagine the same scene again, but this time, you’re all wearing VR headsets. Yes, that’s right. It sucks.
Even in its current crude state, an inherent flaw of virtual reality technology is that it’s just too effective at shutting out the real world. Putting on goggles and headphones blocks out reality on two major sensory fronts, tanking a user to a new reality so convincing that it overpowers the original. Because of this, a VR viewing experience is an intense and personal one. And while this might be desirable, it does cut out the core of what, I think, can make watching a movie magical: shared experience. Not being able to comment on things with your friends, or watch their faces when you know a plot twist is coming, will take away a fundamental part of what makes TV and film worthwhile.
When you watch a comedy in a group, you laugh more. If you watch anything tense with a group, their tension amplifies your own. In short: everything is better when you can share the experience.
Virtual reality is a novelty for now, but novelty must eventually wear off. So when we’re talking about the future, we have to imagine a hypothetical world where leaving reality and entering a virtuality – to our senses of sight and sound indistinguishable from the real – is normal. What will this world look like? How will it work? What will it do to our mental health? On a practical level, assuming we even enjoy virtual reality, how much time will we spend outside of VR, working to earn money and to keep things running in the real world just so we can go home, boot up and check out? In a world where everyone has access to a virtual reality, does actual reality still have any worth? Is it all just a means to an end, and is that end as meaningless as the reality it exists within? If we all owned VR headsets, would life even be worth living?
This is all hypothetical, of course. It presupposes a future in which everyone does own a VR headset, and on the whole that future sounds pretty bad. VR headsets will see a huge surge in popularity over coming years as the technology gets more affordable and more companies develop shows and games specifically for the platforms. However, when VR finally becomes commonplace the novelty will disappear, and what users will be left with is a broken, solitary, and wholly unsatisfying viewing experience. VR will go out of fashion, like the Smell-O-Vision did in the past and 3D is doing now. I say this not because I’m certain, but because I’m an optimist.